Cooking in Bimbilla, Ghana

By Rebecca Czekalski
Humanist Service Corps Volunteer

As a daughter of patriarchy, I have logged more than my share of hours in the kitchen. I helped out with 400-person banquets to celebrate Thanksgiving. I baked Christmas cookies for the neighborhood, regularly topping 5,000 cookies every December. I baked bread and boiled eggs for Resurrection Sunday. I planned my meals, knowing exactly how much of what I would cook every day. I went to the cupboard thinking “Oh, fluff, now what?!” on those rare occasions that I forgot there were 31 days in the month. I planned, prepped, and prepared all these meals for my family alone, therefore in a state of utter bliss, though I did it with children underfoot. Through it all, my meals were edible and my skills were nothing to be sniffed at. None of this prepared me for cooking in Bimbilla.

Our team has decided to rotate cooking and cleaning duties within our home. We each cook one night per week, and we each clean up after dinner one night per week. Nights when no one is scheduled to cook or clean are a free-for-all. Thursday is my night to cook. Some of us cook in teams, but I find cooking much more meditative when I cook alone.

Our situation presents a unique set of culinary challenges. Our team has consisted of six to seven members from various backgrounds, with very different attitudes, preferences, and allergies when it comes to food. Most of us love spice. I can’t abide even a hint of pepper. Some of us don’t like meat. Some of us are allergic to dairy. I am allergic to peanuts, which are called groundnuts here. Some of us love tomatoes. Some of us hate tomatoes. Some of us crave butter and other fats. Some of us don’t. With so many varying needs, it can be difficult to strike a balance that makes each of us happy. The one thing we can all agree on is that the state of chocolate affairs in Bimbilla is a grave travesty.

It took a few tries for me to cook food that met everyone’s needs. I was starting to get very frustrated, but one day I saw spaghetti in the market. We had been in Bimbilla nearly two weeks, so most of us were ready for a familiar food. I made spaghetti with homemade tomato-based sauce with optional goat meat, and it was a hit. This meal, along with garlic bread, has become a weekly staple.

Bimbilla is a fairly large town, but personal tastes are not the only challenge of cooking in Bimbilla. We do not yet have the gas hooked up to our propane stove, so we are cooking on a two-burner electric stove top. I would greatly prefer to be able to throw my garlic bread in the oven instead of crisp it in a pan, but that is an easy adjustment to make. The real challenge comes from dumsor.

Dumsor is a Twi word that means “off and on.” It is the word used throughout Ghana to describe the frequent rolling blackouts that occur every few days. In the past, these blackouts were completely random and would mean that the power would be out for several days. Currently, dumsor comes every four days and lasts from 6am until 6pm. We also lose power whenever there is a rainstorm or thunderstorm. The power also goes out at random times for a few hours here and there. As a result of this electrical unpredictability, it is not safe to keep food that may spoil quickly in the small refrigerator that we have bought. It is great for nice, cold, refreshing drinks, but not for keeping food edible.

The lack of ability to keep food refrigerated necessitates daily trips to the market for both our food and the puppy and cat food. There is a small market that is open every day, even on holidays, where you can get fresh vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, garlic, and onions. Making my spaghetti sauce dish requires at least fifteen tomatoes, several peppers, ten cloves of garlic, and seven onions. If I can get more than that, I usually do, just so that everyone can have as much tomato sauce as they want. Buying spaghetti noodles is a bit more challenging. There are three stores in Bimbilla that sell spaghetti noodles, and they are usually open unless it is a holiday. The bread can be bought anywhere along the roadside, and is very easy and inexpensive to buy.

The goat is my main challenge. Goat is sold at several roadside meat roasting locations. I usually go to Bright’s Goat Stand on the main road. This goat stand only sells goat between the hours of 11am and 3pm and only until the goat is gone. If I want to get the best pieces of goat, I go around 12:30 or 1pm. This gives the goat meat a good long time over the fire pit, but ensures that there will be good meat still available for purchase. Bright and I have had many conversations about what I like. I am a very picky customer, but I buy regularly and I buy a lot, so Bright likes to keep me happy. When I explained that I didn’t want intestine, I didn’t want brains, I didn’t want hooves, and I didn’t want excessive fat, he asked me why I bought goat if I clearly didn’t like the best parts. Bright is successful as a goat meat seller, so he usually takes one day off a week, and does not work holidays.

If the power is on, cooking my purchases is not too difficult. I cut all my tomatoes, onions, and garlic, throw them into a pot, put a small amount into a smaller pot for those who don’t like meat, then add the meat to the bigger pot. I put both pots over heat for about 30 minutes, until the sauce is nice and has settled together well. Then I pull my sauce and add pepper to both pots, letting them cook for another 15 minutes, then put them aside. I cut my bread and chop more garlic, putting both into a small fry pan. I roast my bread for about two minutes per side, and then put butter into the pan with the garlic for a nice dipping sauce once all my bread has been roasted. While I am doing the bread, I boil the water and cook my noodles. Start to finish, from chopping vegetables to plates on the table takes about 2 hours.

Screen Shot 2015-10-12 at 2.45.55 PMIf the power is off, it is a whole different story. Without power, I cook over a coal fire. This is challenging because waving a woven fan in front of a door on the coal oven controls the amount of heat from the coals. The faster I wave the fan, the more heat I get. At the same time, I have to make sure that there are always enough fresh coals that the fire does not go out. I can only use one pot at a time. Coal-fire cooking is the bane of my culinary existence. It is a constant challenge, and I have only successfully prevented the fire from going out the whole time I was cooking on one occasion. I have cooked over the coals at least five times.

Coal cooking requires a few tweaks to my modus operandi in the kitchen. Everything gets chopped first. There is no time to do any cutting or chopping while worrying about that fire. All the vegetables go into one pot. The goat is saved to the side, to be warmed separately and thrown onto plates at the very end. The sauce is cooked for only thirty minutes, but I place the pot on the ground close to the coal stove to keep it warm. After the sauce is on its way, I pull my portion and add the pepper, letting the pepper settle within the hot pot. I make the noodles next, then very quickly and lightly brown the garlic bread. I then heat the goat all the way through to ensure its safety. This takes me nearly three hours from chop to plate.

Cooking in Bimbilla is an incredible challenge. There are many new factors that require adjustment. However, these challenges have really made me think about how the women of Bimbilla, Kukuo, and surrounding villages must manage their homes and kitchens every day. I have always understood why homemaking could be considered a full time job, but here I understand the potency of its demands on an even more visceral level. I have a very high regard for the skill set that has been cultivated over years of practice by the women of Bimbilla.

Rebecca Czekalski

Rebecca-Czekalski-Action-Shot-300x300 Rebecca Czekalski has taught in the science department of a dual language international high school in South Korea for the last five years. During that time, she has co-authored the school’s AP Biology and AP Chemistry curricula, collaborated on science- and English-themed camps for Korean elementary schools, and launched an annual science fair for her students. Before moving to Korea, Rebecca was a registered nurse for eight years, specializing in cardiac nursing, and a travel nurse for two years. Rebecca’s interests in other cultures and serving people have made her time in Korea rewarding both personally and professionally, and she looks forward to continuing her journey in Ghana. Rebecca has been a secular humanist for three years.

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